Like many young urbanites in the 2000s, I was obsessed with Joy Division. I’m not sure why this two-decades defunct* band from Manchester touched a nerve, but touch a nerve it did. Yet I always found it perplexing the way its British lead singer, Ian Curtis, sang with a strikingly American accent:
It’s a long-running tradition for both American and British singers to mimic African American Vernacular English when singing the blues or blues-derived genres like rock. But Curtis adopted an accent that vaguely resembled General American English. At a time when British singers used their own dialects, why did Curtis choose to sing in an voice so different from that his native Macclesfield-ian?
Curtis’ hypercorrective pronunciation of “flawed” so it sounds like “floored” recalls Paul McCartney’s jarring “I never sore them at all” from “Till There Was You.” In both cases, I am assuming these singers adopted rhotic pronunciations to sound more like their cousins across the pond (although both came from cities near rhotic Lancashire).
Sometimes such attempts result in fascinatingly muddled accents. For instance, Marcus Mumford, of the wonderful Mumford & Sons, mixes his native London with something else that is … American, West Country, Irish maybe? I actually find this mystery an intriguing asset:
Singers use non-native dialects when the particular style of music has a tradition of being performed in a particular region or by a particular ethnicity (as is the case with the Blues, Bluegrass, and Irish traditional music). I find it somewhat unusual, then, when a singer opts to change their accent to something like General American, which has few music styles associated with it. Why would singers choose to adopt a ‘unplaceable American’ voice?
*Defunct until they became New Order, that is.